If you write great content you need a great headline. Getting the headline right is the most important thing you can do attract readers.
There’s no doubt about it — we’re living in a world where short-form content is getting a lot of attention and headlines are driving it. The main lesson for people who create great content is to have a great headline.
There are a lot of websites taking a short-term view and chasing advertising dollars by generating headlines that bear little or no resemblance to the content that follows. Then there are the sites that create content that does deliver on its promise. Upworthy is a good example. One of its founders said its mission is, “…to give people the information and tools that help make them better, more aware citizens.”
Consider the video Upworthy posted of Elizabeth Warren in a Senate Banking Committee under the headline, “Elizabeth Warren asks the most obvious question ever and stumps a bunch of bank regulators.” Senate committees don’t make for the most exciting content, but this video resonated with people and it was shared hundreds of thousands of times.
If Upworthy wasn’t delivering on the promise of its headlines people wouldn’t be sharing it. The content matched the headline, people liked the content, and they shared it. That’s how content gets read.
The importance of writing great headlines isn’t new
Advertisers and newspapers have relied on headlines to attract readers’ attention for decades. What’s different is that we are now in a phase where the headlines have become so noticeable we are either annoyed by them, intrigued by them, or both.
The current headline culture is something I’ve mostly resisted on this blog. Headlines like:
- “Do You Make These 9 [Blank] Mistakes?”
- “How to [Blank] (Even If [Common Obstacle])”
- “[Do Something] Like [Famous Person]: 20 Ways to [Blank].”
These can be found in Jon Morrow’s Headline Hacks if you’re interested. They will probably help you reach a bigger audience.
The main lesson
The main lesson is to be aware of the current trends, but don’t become wedded to them. What works today might not work in a few months. New techniques will emerge and sites like Upworthy will either drive them or follow suit.
The following principles you can rely on. They’re timeless and not going anywhere.
David Ogilvy — Confessions of an Advertising Man
On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.
Ogilvy wrote no fewer than 16 headlines for every ad. Here are ten things he suggests for writing headlines.
1. Is it in good taste? Anything offensive in any way? Can anything be taken a wrong way?
2. Does it attract the reader’s attention? How can it be improved without sacrificing accuracy?
3. Does it communicate clearly, quickly? Any confusion? Any odd words, double meanings?
4. Is it accurate, true? Proper words used? Is the thrust of subject-verb true?
5. A single “NO” above is a veto. One “No” vote represents thousands of readers. Start over: rethink the headline from the beginning.
“Omit needless words,” said Strunk and White. If you apply that guideline to only one aspect of your writing, let that be headlines.
Bad Language — 50 words that will improve your writing
Put some action into your headline. “Man kills woman” is better than “Woman dead”
Find out what works for you
What works for other sites might not work for you. The best thing you can do is test. A/B testing should be a standard feature in your email campaign software — test two or more subject lines in each campaign you send out. Send out different tweets over the day linking to the same content to find out what works best. Use Google Analytics’ content experiments to test which headlines result in more clicks, a lower bounce rate, and more time on your site.
Whatever you do, write the great headline your content deserves.